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Chelsea O'Byrne

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I fell in love for the first time when I was 16 years old. I always felt I was a complicated 16-year-old. Then again, perhaps most teenage girls are. My mother said I was “sensitive.” I imagine this was because I was always a rather shy and introverted child and this became even more acute in my teenage years. I kept to myself and I never said much, certainly not about what I was feeling. But I felt things profoundly. At that particular time in my life, what I mostly felt was a sense of being different and alone. I longed to find someone who understood me.

Then one day, there he was – my first love. He had this wonderful head of wavy brown hair, beautiful brown eyes and a brooding kind of look. He always seemed deep in thought, rather contemplative and serious, but with a slight glimmer of something more mischievous in his eyes. I liked that brooding persona when I was 16. I found it alluring and in some manner relatable. (Now, 40 years later, I find it quite tiresome in a man.)

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I loved the sound of his voice back then. It had a soothing, simmering quality with a bit of a warble. Like candlelight at dusk flickering in the faintest breeze, his voice was neither weak nor strong but completely captivating. I heard him recite some of his poetry and I felt I could listen to him forever. Yes, he was a poet. He fit perfectly into my burgeoning ideal of romantic love. He was, however, much older than me. He told stories of women he had loved and places he had been. His stories were filled with a melancholy, an intimacy and an ache that intrigued me.

As I got older and began to acquire my own experiences, that voice and those stories cradled me through heartbreak, loneliness and loss. Through breakups in university, a failed marriage, children leaving home and regrets for opportunities lost, I would hear his voice and his words and I wouldn’t feel quite as alone. The pain would ease. This month marks three years since he passed away. In some ways, I regret that I never met him. In other ways, perhaps that’s what’s kept the love perfect and untarnished after all these years.

I cried the first time I saw him in person. It was May, 2009. He quite literally pranced onto the stage at the K-Rock Centre in Kingston, Ont. I never thought I would have the chance to see Leonard Cohen perform live. But at 74 years of age, this poet and singer songwriter extraordinaire was forced to tour again after a 15-year hiatus. Now, there he was on the stage, and the memories of all this man had unknowingly helped me through came rushing back. I was completely overcome with emotion.

He sang Suzanne, the song I first saw him perform on TV in 1976, the song that made me fall in love with him. His voice had deepened with the passing of time, the edges were a bit softer and a warm, and satisfying gravel had replaced the warble.

My father taught me how to swim upstream, just like salmon

Can I endure the worst and hope for the best? I’m working on it

Table for three: the first family outing after my husband died

I had invited my partner to Kingston to see the concert with me. Our relationship was still relatively new then and he wasn’t quite sure what to make of this woman sitting beside him as she tried unsuccessfully to stem the flow of tears. He would soon begin to understand the relationship I had forged with Leonard and just how far I would go to see him.

And go, I did. To New York, where I stopped by the Chelsea Hotel, the locale and title of Leonard’s song about his tryst with Janis Joplin. To Montreal, to hear him perform in front of his hometown fans. To glitzy Las Vegas, which was everything Leonard wasn’t. To Berlin, where this Canadian Jewish troubadour sang to a crowd of more than 16,000 in an amphitheatre nestled in the Black Forest, originally built to facilitate the Nazi propaganda machine. To Rome, where Leonard performed at another open-air venue on a magical evening in my favourite city in the world. I always thought that I would see him again but Rome marked the last time. While Leonard’s tour lasted another six months, I regrettably had run out of vacation days. I had followed my first love across parts of North America and Europe, sometimes with my partner, sometimes with my eldest son.

My two not-so-guilty pleasures are listening to Leonard Cohen and enjoying fine red wine, preferably together. I’m selfish about these indulgences, sharing them only with those I care deeply for, those who understand the certain peace that can be found sitting in a room lit by candlelight, sipping a glass of fine Italian barolo and listening to Leonard. So I was particularly pleased that my son was there for the concert in Rome. He had developed his own love for Leonard’s music and, on this trip, a taste for Italian red wine. Although we never talked about it, I suspect that Leonard’s poems and music saw him through heartbreak and loss, just as they had for me.

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It was November, 2016, when my partner and I decided to take a weekday break and go to a quaint little inn in Jordan Station not far from Niagara-on-the-Lake. It was late when we arrived and we walked to a little pub for dinner. We sat at the bar. It was trivia night and evidently a big draw for the locals as all the tables were full. The bartender served us, bringing our salads and curry. It was the bartender who, upon looking at his phone, said to nobody in particular that Leonard Cohen had died.

Had I heard him correctly? We checked our phones to find that tributes had already begun to pour in from around the globe. My phone pinged with a text from my eldest. He was living and working in South Korea and had woken to the news. He, too, had thought we would see Leonard again.

My partner and I walked slowly back to the inn on that chilly November evening, processing the news. We opened a bottle of wine, sat quietly and listened to the Leonard Cohen playlist on my phone. For who better than Leonard to help you ease the pain of love and loss?

Brenda Riddick lives in Kelowna, B.C.

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